Walter Waugaman
A comfort-level concert with Denève and favorites.
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Stéphane Denève is not what you could call a high-impact podium presence.
He led a perfectly pleasant concert Thursday night. The Paris Conservatory-trained conductor does nothing extreme, nothing exaggerated - a strategy that works in getting the Philadelphia Orchestra to a high comfort level, particularly in repertoire it knows well.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, for instance, doesn't play itself. But a little guidance gets a lot of sound. The punch and exhilaration you might have heard? That's Tchaikovsky.

In a program of favorites, you would have been justified in yearning for a more emphatic declaration of musical values.

James Ehnes provided some. The Canadian-born, Juilliard School-trained violinist played the Barber Violin Concerto, which, though a staple, has been tucked under the banner of a rather half-hearted citywide nod to the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. Ehnes is a wonderfully musical player. He found expressive meaning in nooks and crannies of the first movement that usually go overlooked. He's got a gorgeous tone (though, from a first-tier seat new to me, it didn't come across as a large sound).

He'll be better served in the third movement, the "presto in moto perpetuo," if Denève and the orchestra can establish greater exactitude in a repeat of the program tonight. As it was, the ensemble was sometimes like two hands of a pianist hitting the keyboard a split second apart.

Denève expanded the usual "March" and "Scherzo" from Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges by surrounding them with the less-known other four movements of the suite. The orchestra was appropriately tart, and the more luxuriant orchestrations were even more satisfying.

A little coaching from Denève would have benefited some of the wind solos in the Tchaikovsky. Why is it that principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales is often left to stake a claim to virtuosity all on his own? If there was a strong statement in the first movement, it came in the idea that repose had a place as counterweight to electricity. I'm not sure it worked - too many slack stretches - though it did expose some detail you don't always have time to appreciate.
Posted on 15 Nov 2009, 4:30 AM